Monday, August 13, 2012

HOW LITTLE PROBLEMS BECOME BIG PROBLEMS: WHEN A PETTY OFFENSE TURNS INTO A MISDEMEANOR OR FELONY

A man was walking down the middle of a road instead of the sidewalk or shoulder. In Illinois, you must use a sidewalk where provided or at least walk on the shoulder. The man was arrested for a petty offense, comparable to a minor traffic violation. Back at the police station, the man was searched, and the police found cocaine in his sock.

The Illinois Supreme Court recently upheld the arrest and search of the man in this case, even though the arrest was for a mere petty offense, punishable only by a fine. The Court denied Defendant’s motion to suppress the results of the search, that is the cocaine, and the man went to jail on felony charges for 3 years. People v Fitzpatrick.

More commonly, you could be stopped for blowing a stop sign or failing to signal. In one Illinois Supreme Court case, a driver was stopped because she did not have a rear registration light. The officer brought a drug-sniffing dog to the scene, and drugs were found. Under a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision, police are allowed to change the nature of a traffic stop as long as it does not unduly delay the length of the traffic stop. In other words, police can stop you for going through a red light and then question you about drugs or weapons as long as the stop doesn’t last too long.

In the Illinois case, the Court held that the 15 minutes it took to get the drug sniffing dog did not unreasonably prolong the traffic stop. That means in 15 minutes, your blown-out tail light could turn into serious felony charges if officers find the wrong kind of drugs.

After being charged with a DUI or other crime, many clients believe they will be extra careful and will avoid trouble. But the above cases show how easy it is to get trapped by law enforcement on a minor offense that leads to big trouble for you. Besides being charged with the new crime, you can also be violated on your existing offense, giving you a triple whammy.

If the new offense aggravates any of your old offenses, your misdemeanor could turn into a felony with more severe jail time.

If you are charged with a criminal, traffic or DUI offense, contact an experienced criminal law attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can evaluate the facts of your situation to look for weaknesses in the state’s case and help you present the best defense possible. The state must still prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Even if the evidence against you is overwhelming, an attorney who is respected in the courthouse may be able to negotiate a better plea agreement than you could on your own.

If you have questions about this or another related criminal or traffic matter, please contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email matt@mattkeenanlaw.com.

(Besides Skokie, Matt Keenan also serves the communities of Arlington Heights, Chicago, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glenview, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Niles, Northbrook, Park Ridge, Rolling Meadows, Wilmette and Winnetka.)